Youth Culture Window

The Messages in Today’s Top Music

Dynamic ImageThere are several consistent messages in today’s most popular music. At (or near) the top of the charts, one can usually find songs about sexuality, lost love, or vanity in various forms. Those are the “go-to” topics for many artists these days.

So, is there a way to manage those messages?

The songs at the top of the charts this week sound very different, musically. They include rock, R&B, rap, dance, and even folk songs. However, several of the songs have ideas that have been heard before, over and over again. In other words, different sound, same message.

Here is a brief look at four of this week’s biggest songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart in order of rank and popularity. See if you can spot the familiar messages embedded in them.

#1 Wrecking Ball (by Miley Cyrus)
How do you follow up one of the most-talked about moments in the history of television? If you’re Miley Cyrus, you find a wrecking ball…and lose your clothes.

By now, much of the world (including her former fiancé) is tired of hearing about Miley Cyrus “twerking” at the 2013 MTV VMAs or seeing her wild/erotic antics like frequently going commando in public. But the We Can’t Stop star has no intention of fading into the background of culture. Miley’s latest offering to humanity, Wrecking Ball, is sitting at the top of the charts and is as weird as it is popular.

The lyrics for Wrecking Ball are harmless enough, basically revolving around the theme of lost love (which is a popular one these days). Over and over again, Miley despairs, “you wrecked me” while leaking tears from her eyes.

But the music video is anything but typical. It’s been seen well over 100 million times and features a nude Cyrus swinging back and forth on a wrecking ball licking a sledge hammer.

You read that correctly.

As Jonathan noted in his blog, the video’s images are turning off a lot of people. One person who posted a comment said, “Miley is white trash. The end.” Another claimed, “This is too much. I feel like I’m watching porn. And I’m totally not interested her body.” A third asks, “Who actually licks a hammer in real life?”

But Miley is right where she wants to be: on top. If a hyper-sexualized image or message is required to keep her there, it’s a safe bet she’ll keep on providing one…just like the next sex-focused artist, below.

#4 Blurred Lines (By Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell)
This song, performed by the son of TV’s Growing Pains’ star Alan Thicke, has been on the charts for 22 weeks, spending 12 of those weeks in the top spot. Blurred Lines was probably the most-played song of the summer (Jonathan wrote about it this summer in his article, The Naked Truth), and one of the most-talked about songs in history…for several reasons.

First, the song is really catchy (and features a couple of big names alongside of Thicke). Second, the song’s lyrics, about blurring the lines of a physical relationship, are incredibly risqué. Here’s just one excerpt from the hit tune:

You the hottest bitch in this place
I feel so lucky Hey, hey, hey
You wanna hug me Hey, hey, hey
What rhymes with hug me? Hey, hey, hey
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it I know you want it
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me

But it’s the song’s music video that really makes people’s jaws drop to the floor. The “clean” versionfocuses on the raw sides of sensuality and female objectification: guys gawking at scantily-clad ladies prancing in front of them, lots of provocative dancing, and a large, chromed message that reads “ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG D.”

I wonder what the D stands for?

But the song also has an “unrated” version of the music video. In this rendering, which we won’t link, those prancing girls are topless, the provocative dancing is even more celebrated, and we find out what the D actually stands for.

It’s not “dog.”

Again, the reaction to this song has been mixed. While there’s no doubt the song is on millions of people playlists, one online video forces young people to ask hard questions about the song’s appropriateness.

More on that video in a moment; there are two more songs in the Top 10 we need to quickly dissect.

#6 Holy Grail (by Jay Z featuring Justin Timberlake)
This collaboration between Justin Timberlake and Jay Z has been on the charts for 10 weeks, and peaked at #4. It’s down two spots as of this writing, and that’s probably a good thing. The lyrics are littered with vulgarities and slurs, as evidenced by this excerpt from the first verse:

Blue told me remind you n****s
F**k that s**t y’all talking ’bout, I’m the n***a
Caught up in all these lights and cameras
But look what that s**t did to Hammer
Go******t I like it
Bright lights is enticing but look what it did to Tyson
All that money in one night, thirty mill for one fight
But soon as all the money blows, all the pigeons take flight
F**k the fame, keep cheating on me, what I do, I took her back
Fool me twice, that’s my bad, I can’t even blame her for that
Enough to make me wanna murder, momma please just get my bail
I know nobody to blame, Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself

That’s a lot of asterisks.

If you read the rest of the song’s lyrics, you find that the song is about Jay Z’s ongoing struggle with success. He rattles off a list of pitfalls that accompany success and fame in our culture: “psycho b**ches in my lobby,” “haters in the paper,” and being forced to put “curtains all in my windows.”

But I doubt all these setbacks will keep Jay Z from creating chart-topping music. He’s grown too accustomed to the money and the “applause”…just like this final artist, below.

#7 Applause by Lady Gaga
Applause is Lady Gaga’s latest single, and when she performed it to open the 2013 MTV VMAs, she did so in a revealing wardrobe that kept shrinking as the song went on. Her attire in the music videosuffers the same fate.

But it’s the song’s narcissistic message that’s front and center. She blatantly tells the world that she lives for the approval of others. Is she being cynical? On September 18th she tweeted, “Applause is a very meaningful song to me, because it addresses what many think of celebrities today, that we do it for the attention.”

Funny, until I read that tweet, I didn’t catch the sarcasm. Take a look:

I live for the applause, applause, applause
I live for the applause-plause
Live for the applause-plause
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me
The applause, applause, applause

Give me that thing that I love (I’ll turn the lights on)
Put your hands up, make ’em touch, touch (make it real loud)
Give me that thing that I love (I’ll turn the lights on)
Put your hands up, make ’em touch, touch (make it real loud)

(A-P-P-L-A-U-S-E) Make it real loud
(A-P-P-L-A-U-S-E) Put your hands up, make ’em touch, touch
(A-P-P-L-A-U-S-E) Make it real loud
(A-P-P-L-A-U-S-E) Put your hands up, make ’em touch, touch

The rest of the song’s lyrics echo the same self-gratifying message. Lady Gaga basically tells the world to go, well, gaga, over her. Or does it?

Managing the Messages
I don’t want to give the idea that ALL music at the top of the charts has a negative message embedded in it just because two of them focus on sex and two others focus on pride and worldliness. There are exceptions to this norm, for instance, the song sitting in the #2 position this week. Katy Perry’s Roar, a song about persevering in the face of life’s obstacles, offers a message that’s so powerful we developed a MUSIC DISCUSSION resource based on it.

Earlier, I said we’d discuss this online video in greater detail. Do yourself – and the teenagers in your life – a favor and invest the necessary 8 minutes and 59 seconds it takes to watch it.

Seriously. Click the link. Watch the clip. It’s that important.

Hopefully, you made some key observations about how the producers chose to interact with the students in this video. I think the way this video is laid out can help us manage the messages embedded in these four songs…and any song that comes our way in the future.


  1. The producers listened to the song and watched the music video WITH the teens. Over and over again, these Youth Culture Window articles that have focused on music harp the same practice: take the time to explore new music together. With online search engines like Google and YouTube, it’s simple to find out all you need to know about a song and whether it’s appropriate for the teenagers in your life.
  2. The producers ask the teens hard questions that lead them to ask hard questions of themselves. Even though they got to some deep questions, note that the producers started out pretty shallow, asking easy questions to get the young people comfortable. They moved from “Did you like it?” and “How did it make you feel?” to more insightful questions about appropriateness, meaning, and even, sexual ethics. But note how the young people began to ask their own questions. Most of them were coming to the (right) answer just because they were forced to think through some well-formulated questions. Use the same strategy in yourconversations. This helps create a worldview through which your teenagers will view all songs.
  3. The producers made the young people think about the impact this song has on them and others. Isn’t this what we’re trying to achieve when it comes to our relationship with teenagers (whether as parents or youth workers)? The producers forced the young people to come to grips with the realities of female degradation, personal hypocrisy, and the message’s influence on other/younger viewers. In short, the producers made the young people think. When they were given the time to do that, most of the young people produced some pretty solid logic.

So many messages these days are so sneaky. When we let them encroach upon our teenagers, the damage they cause can be great. Make sure to use helpful tools, like search engines and The Source for Youth Ministry’s MUSIC DISCUSSIONS page, to stay abreast of new music and its influence. They go a long way toward helping you manage the message in today’s music.

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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